Cover Story

Catching Mitt

Campaign 2008 | Despite high discomfort level with presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Mormonism, the GOP candidate's ratings aren't going down

Issue: "Is Romney rolling?," May 19, 2007

How many voters does insurance broker Frank Senger of Newport Beach, Calif., represent?

"No way will I be voting for Mitt Romney," he insists. A Republican and a lifelong Baptist, he abhors the thought of voting for a Mormon for president and says "there's more to it than just some prejudice. It bothers me a whole lot that someone that bright could fall for the stories about where Mormonism came from, and all that blather about the golden tablets. If he'll fall for that, do I want him in the same room and at the same table with Kim Jong-il of North Korea or Ahmadinejad from Iran?"

Senger also wonders about "why Romney's changed so many of his positions on key issues. Just seems a little too convenient at this stage of the game for him to become so conservative all of a sudden on abortion, on homosexual marriage-even on some economic issues."

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Mitt Romney, of course, has heard that often this year. He's read the polls that say 25 percent of all American voters-or worse yet, a third of all Republicans-won't even consider voting for a Mormon for president. And he's responded so often to the "flipflopping" charges that he probably could do that in his sleep.

In a late April interview with Romney, WORLD asked: "The Apostle Paul is famous for saying that if the historical facts don't back up Christianity, then his teaching-Paul's teaching-is worthless and the Christian faith is futile. Would you be willing to say the same thing if it were shown that Joseph Smith made things up? Would it be fair to conclude that Mormon teaching is also worthless and futile?"

Romney was quick to answer. "I'm not going to take that hypothetical-OK?" he said, almost curtly, then softened. "I'm no Paul," he added modestly.

But for all the controversy over the candidacy of the 60-year-old former governor of Massachusetts, who potentially could become the first Mormon president of the United States, Romney is very much in the race. Analyst and columnist Peggy Noonan (who makes no effort to hide her own support for unannounced candidate Fred Thompson) proclaimed Romney winner of the May 3 GOP debate in Simi Valley, Calif., that featured all 10 active candidates. "The statuesque Mr. Romney," she wrote, "had a certain good-natured command, a presidential voice, and a surprising wiliness. He seemed happy to be there, and in the mysterious way that some people seem to dominate, he dominated."

Some GOP voters seemed to agree: Among New Hampshire primary voters, Romney drew 31 percent of the vote to Giuliani's 23 percent and McCain's 22 percent in a poll following the debate.

Things are, in fact, so positive around the Romney camp following the debate that you'd never guess their man-even after six months of costly, energetic campaigning-has regularly lagged well behind Rudy Giuliani and John McCain in overall polls. Never fear, say the Romney people. Of the "big three" candidates, theirs is the only one whose numbers have actually improved in recent weeks. The Giuliani boom has crested, they believe, and the wave of McCain support left over from the 2000 campaign is proving that it is just that-a leftover.

But no one knows for sure whether the dissipating Giuliani and McCain support represents potential for Romney, or if it is more likely to seek out other potential candidates like Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich, or one of the so-called minor candidates (Sam Brownback, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Tommy Thompson)-none of whose poll numbers have yet passed the 4 percent level.

Yet this much seems certain: If there is to be credible movement in the Romney polling numbers, it will have to come from skeptics like Frank Senger. No one can up front write off a quarter or maybe even a third of his targeted constituency and expect to win. Which is why Romney for some months now has been going out of his way to build bridges to the camps of evangelical Christian leadership.

The effort has borne early and surprising fruit. After the campaign invited a dozen hand-picked evangelical leaders (including Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jay Sekulow, and Gary Bauer) to the Romney home near Boston for a three-hour get-acquainted session in November, reassuring word began to spread that in spite of his Mormonism, Romney is an OK guy. The Southern Baptists' Richard Land was not at that meeting but has left the door open, saying "We're not electing a theologian-in-chief."

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